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A sorry state of affairs

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.47, 4 December 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

I am going to be the Brenda Lee of the education world.

I’m sorry, so sorry
That I was such a fool
I didn’t know
School could be so cruel
Oh, oh, oh, oh
Oh yes
You tell me mistakes
Are part of being young
But that won’t right
The wrong that’s been done
 I’m sorry, so sorry
Etc etc etc

I want to say sorry to the students who leave school without the skills to be independent.

I want to say sorry to students who miss out on getting into medical school.

I want to say sorry for having a school built below a slag heap in Abervan.

I apologise to earlier generations who didn’t attend secondary school even though very few did and despite the fact that not going to secondary school had no impact on their lives, I’m sorry.

But I draw breath in this orgy of apology. Why all this sorrifulness? Well, it’s the fashion now to say sorry for things that you weren’t responsible for. It shows greatness of spirit and takes the attention away from the things for which you might be truly sorry.

Writing recently in The Spectator, Roy Liddle describes such an apology as “the quintessential example of the modern apology; a politician who is not remotely contrite apologising for something for which he had not the vaguest responsibility and for which therefore, he cannot be blamed. A non-apology apology then – an apology for something someone else did, and what’s more, did in the best of faith.

He was commenting specifically on the Gordon Brown / Kevin Rudd pas de deux of apologies to The Forgotten Generation of British children who were packed off to Australia by parents in a scheme devised by the governments to give them a life of new opportunity away from the drudgery of post-war Britain.

Yes, they seem to have been treated a shabbily at times but no number of apologies will change that just as the as the amount of clerical abuse of young children is not minimised by any number of apologies from the church. Being contrite after the event, even after a hundred years, or 60 years, does not alter one bit, the horror or the hurt, does not put into a good light something that will always be abhorrent. So why do it, apologise that is.

Well it is an attempt for leaders to show strength of spirit. I am not talking about the regret expressed after an accident and at the time of it. I am meaning the apologies that come well after the event. Mt Erebus for example. Air NZ cannot put right by apology that which was wrong in their actions thirty years ago.

So what about the apologies from the Crown that accompany Treaty of Waitangi grievance settlements? Well, without the cash they would be pretty hollow although perhaps there is a dimension in these instances where a Bergsonian view of time means that the Treaty was signed yesterday and grievances still hurt today. In these instances there could be an element of truth in what Boese’s assertion that “forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future” and that is what I see happening in the case of treaty settlements.

But this is not the case in other apologies. I do not see forgiveness, simply increased anger and a further opportunity for people’s hurt to become explicit and be exacerbated.

In a related area, I have long wondered why there is such a strong demand for remorse and contrition by people who have had some hurt visited on them by others. In courts comment is often made that some criminal has failed to show remorse leading up to sentencing. Is it not understood that those who are capable of committing serious crimes against people do not live ina space where remorse is an option?

The might be a thin line between a demand for remorse and feelings of retribution. When you are on the side of an issue that has little power you are reduced to demanding an apology. But often, especially in the historical examples it is the apologiser who decides that there is advantage in saying sorry.

How many principals and teachers have attempted to resolve a playground scrap or some other issue by demanding an apology from the perpetrator? And how successful has that been? Well probably very successful depending on the extent to which the issue was trivial. Asking the perpetrator to say “rhubarb” would probably have worked as well and extracted a laugh from both sides. – it is simply a little ritual.

How often in some trivial dispute has sorry failed to conclude things? Go on say sorry! No!

And what about the ritualised apology of parliament? “The Hon Member for Lower Parnell is a thief and roguish blackmailer who is not to be trusted with chickens….”  “Point of order Mr Speaker.” “The member will apologise.” Then follows the Mallardism –  “I ‘poligise an’ w’draw Mis’ ‘peaker.” Honour is restored.

I spent time in Russia in the early 1980’s with a Canadian principal colleague. In those days you had to tour with a group and owe had secured a couple of places in a Uk trade union delegation. Also in the group was a woman from Germany who spent the entire tour apologising to our hosts for the atrocities visited on Russia during “The Fascist War” which was how World War II was referred to by the Russians.

Her anguish was deep and genuine, her tears were those of a person disturbed when confronted with the evidence. She was deeply remorseful. But it was for something in which she had played no part and about which she could do nothing.

Which brings us back to where we started.

On the other hand, we might be better off if we thought a little more about the impact of what we were doing and thus avoided the need for later apology.

Sorry if I have gone on at length about this

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